Don’t Be a Bork 
                  May 12,
2013

By Leonard Zwelling

            In
the fall of 1973, President Richard Nixon no longer wished to deal with the
Special Prosecutor he had appointed in May. That man was Archibald Cox, an
above reproach Harvard law professor looking into allegations of wrong doing
that had surfaced following the Watergate break-in in June of 1972. President
Nixon asked Attorney General Eliot Richardson to fire Cox. The AG refused and
resigned. The role of Cox’s executioner passed to deputy AG William Ruckelshaus
who also refused and resigned. Eventually, the Solicitor General, the next in
line at the Justice Department, did the President’s bidding.

            What
is frequently lost in the telling of Watergate is what it was really about. It
surely was not about some stupid third-rate burglary of Democratic National
Committee Headquarters. It wasn’t about the secret tapes in the White House or
18 minutes missing in the recordings of Rose Mary Woods. And it was surely
nothing like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman looking way better than Woodward
and Bernstein. Watergate was the largest attempt to fix an American
presidential election in all our history—that we know of. It was a massive
abuse of power. Goodness knows what really happened in 1960 or 2000 or any
other really close election contest. But, Nixon got caught as did many of his
colleagues and co-workers and many went to jail.

            The
two men who maintained their honor and integrity had refused the President’s
request to fire Professor Cox on the evening called the Saturday Night Massacre,
October 20, 1973. Many political bodies lay bleeding on the floor that day. In
Solicitor General Robert Bork, Nixon had found his button man.  Bork was later hoist on his own petard
when he was turned down for a seat on the Supreme Court despite being fully
qualified, mostly because Democrats in the Senate opposed his candidacy. What
goes around, comes around.

            What’s
the lesson?

            We
can learn from honorable men like Eliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus who
despite pledging to serve their country turned the President down when asked to
fire Cox. They stuck to their principles and were able to distinguish between
the President they served and the country they loved. These were clear-thinking
men who stood up to narcissistic leadership to protect the legal independence
of the special prosecutor. They realized that there were ideas greater than
their own political well being at stake.

            Lately,
here at Anderson, we have seen a plethora of ad interim appointments,
particularly on the clinical side. This now includes Division Heads and
department chairs. These ad interim leaders all come from within the ranks of
the departments they now lead. They serve at the request and behest of the
President of MD Anderson. Let’s give them all the benefit of the doubt. Let’s
assume that each of them agreed to serve because they believed they were
helping the institution and not because they were furthering some personal
agenda. They believed that rather than have the institution dissolve to chaos,
they would step up and serve.

            But
what would have happened if they had said no? Would the patients not be seen?
Of course they would be seen. Would research stop? Not a chance. Would we more
rapidly approach a rational balance between the autocracy of the 20th
floor and shared governance with the faculty? Perhaps, because those so fond of
ordering the rest of us around would have had to learn what actually occurs in
the clinics and labs because they would have to run them without the complicit
assistance of the ad interim leadership.

            As
long as we as faculty act with complicity to further an agenda to which we do
not ascribe, the more we promote that very agenda. When one is asked to serve
“the institution”, consider what real service to MD Anderson might look like.
It might mean doing what it took to get us back on track as a cancer fighting
patient care entity rather than the putatively novel lead actor in cancer drug
development in Texas.

            So
as a start to asserting the faculty’s right to participate in its own governance
and return the institutional balance between administration and faculty that
has been slipping away for many years, we might start by doing what Richardson
and Ruckelshaus did. We could stand up to the President when asked to do
something that is not good for the institution like supporting and sanctioning
a drift or purposeful strategy of weakening our clinical base of excellence in
lieu of profligate spending on research and then justifying it as a new
business strategy when the leadership imposing this strategy has no experience
successfully turning research into a marketable product.

            We
all need to differentiate what is truly good for the institution we love from
what is self-serving or simply a knee jerk reaction to flattery of the most
insincere kind. For as we have seen so many times in the past, the one thing an
acting chairperson cannot do is act! So how much good do you really do by
serving beyond maintaining the revenue stream for those who wish it misspent
and keeping a chair warm until those in charge can find a compliant permanent
leader.

            Just
say no. For goodness sake, don’t be a Bork!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.